For the aviation maintenance training community, Covid-19 has presented a number of challenges, but maybe also an opportunity for aircraft maintenance technician (AMT) schools to move beyond traditional methods of instruction—if they can get past the regulatory barriers that have made that transition difficult. That was the message from Aviation Technician Education Council (ATEC) executive director Crystal Maguire, who during a May 14 Helicopter Association International webinar on remote maintenance training and compliance explained those challenges but also illustrated how Part 147 schools had to quickly respond to the effects of the pandemic.
At the onset of the crisis, she said there were only five or six maintenance technician schools in the U.S. that were actively providing online content to their students. That online content, she noted, has to be approved by the FAA.
When schools began closing their facilities because of stay-at-home directives from local and state governments, “you can imagine the impact,” Maguire explained. “It had an impact on the education structure across the board, but [it was] especially acute for technical programs given that they were so reliant on in-person, hands-on training.”
The pandemic also has affected A&P testing. According to data ATEC received from the FAA, 615 tests were administered in the first two weeks of March. But that number fell significantly in the first two weeks of April to 84, Maguire said.
Working with the FAA, ATEC was able to get the agency to temporarily “free up” maintenance schools from requirements preventing them from offering online instruction. About half of the 181 Part 147 certificated schools are now temporarily approved to offer online content, she said. In a survey of one-third of ATEC member schools, 75 percent are now offering online-only or a combination of online and in-person instruction, McGuire said. But 25 percent have suspended operations, which is “certainly going to have an impact on our output of certificated mechanics,” she said. “We’re concerned about the impact this is going to have on our current pipeline.”
While those are signs of improvement, many students have yet to graduate because they need to complete in-person projects or other skills-based evaluations that either are not permitted or cannot be performed online because of FAA requirements.
ATEC is pushing for legislation in Congress—the Promoting Aviation Regulations for Technical Training (PARTT) 147 Act—that “rewrites [the] Part 147” rule that would modernize and provide more flexibility for AMT schools, Maguire said, in particular eliminating the burden on them to get FAA approval for courses they offer online including practical skills training and evaluation. “That’s kind of a battle we’re waging right now,” she said in a follow-up interview with AIN. “If a school can show they can do it then they should be able to do it.”
Separately, Choose Aerospace, a new nonprofit formed to raise interest in aerospace careers and find and solve workforce development challenges has issued a request for proposal that among other things would “support online development of hands-on, manipulative content” for Part 147 schools. The group, of which ATEC is a part, looks to form partnerships and tap into grants to fulfill its goals, including online delivery of hands-on training for AMT students. Such technology would be affordable and available to all Part 147 schools and require little investment by them in technology and tools. This could include hands-on training and task completion by way of virtual reality, Maguire added.
Virtual reality maintenance training is something that engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce has begun providing to its customers. As part of the technology behind its IntelligentEngine, Rolls-Royce is offering an instructor-led distance learning course that it said will allow maintenance technicians to service and perform routine maintenance on its BR725 engine found on the Gulfstream G650. A two-day course, its virtual training tool immerses the technician in an augmented environment with realistic images, interactive functions, and auditory feedback.
It offers technicians two scenarios: one in which they work on the engine installed on the aircraft inside a hangar, and the other in which they are presented with the engine alone, “just like it would be in our in-person training courses,” the company said. “The immersive environment allows them not only to watch the process steps to get familiar with the respective task, but to interact with the engine and the tools, and actually accomplish the task under the constant supervision of the instructor.”